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Belarus’ Bleak Future

Human rights advocates warn of abuses in ‘last dictatorship in Europe’

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko / AP
• June 18, 2013 10:06 am

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The people of Belarus will likely face a bleak future until Europe and the United States assume a more active role in condemning human rights abuses in the former Soviet republic, according to a panel of experts at a screening and discussion of the film Belarusian Dream Monday.

The film documents the repressive regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko through the eyes of a young activist from the capital of Minsk. Human rights activists have become increasingly vocal about abuses under Lukashenko’s 19-year rule since allegations of falsified elections sparked mass protests more than two years ago.

The European Union has imposed a number of soft sanctions on the so-called "last dictatorship in Europe," but Belarus remains in the orbit of Russia and President Vladimir Putin, said Rodger Potocki, senior director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy.

"It hasn’t offered anything encouraging enough to pry it away from Moscow," Potocki said after the screening of the film at Washington, D.C., restaurant Busboys and Poets.

EU officials engaged in a "political dance" with Lukashenko before the presidential election in 2010, said Robert Nurick, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

They relaxed travel and financial restrictions on Belarusian leaders and offered Lukashenko an aid package of 3 billion euros if he would guarantee a free and fair election and curb human rights abuses.

However, the announcement of a landslide victory for Lukashenko provoked an outcry in the streets from activists who had become disillusioned after years of authoritarian rule.

Police arrested more than 700 protesters, including dozens of journalists and seven presidential candidates, in the ensuing crackdown.

"It was quite clear if anybody had any doubts about it—the people in the Minsk Square who said this election was a sham were absolutely right," Nurick said.

The government pardoned several of the jailed protesters last year only after they signed requests conceding their guilt, and at least 11 of the political dissidents remain imprisoned. Top human rights leader Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to a four-and-a-half year prison term in 2011 on "bogus tax evasion charges," according to Human Rights Watch.

A financial crisis in 2011 threatened to bring more turmoil to the country until Russia came to its aid with subsidies. Putin has often been at odds with Lukashenko but recognizes Belarus’ value as a buffer to the Eurozone and the only former Soviet satellite where Russia can station troops, Potocki said.

"Russia needs Belarus and up to this point, it’s been willing to pay for it," he said.

Political activities continue to be curtailed by Belarusian authorities. A one-armed man was arrested for "clapping" in a recent nonviolent protest, said Susan Corke, director for Eurasia programs at the human rights watchdog organization Freedom House.

Without assistance from democratic allies, more young people will leave the country and lose interest in the activists’ push for political freedom, Corke said.

"Those in Belarus are looking to the West, and they have hope and expectations that people will help them in their efforts for democratic change," she said.

Published under: Russia, Vladimir Putin